Installing Ubuntu 13.10 on an external hard disk drive (HDD) connected to a computer that’s already running another operating system like Windows 7/8 or another Linux distribution is the subject of this article.

Installing Ubuntu or any other Linux distribution in standalone mode on an HDD is normally a simple, point-and-click operation. To do it on an external HDD connected to a computer running another operating system require a little bit more care, if you don’t want to overwrite the contents of the internal HDDs Master Boot Record (MBR). It’s still a simple process, but you have to watch out!

This tutorial gives those new to Ubuntu and Linux a step-by-step guide on how to complete what should be an easy task. The computer to which the external HDD used for this tutorial is running a self-installed copy of Windows 8. And note that the result of this operation is not the same thing as dual-booting, even though the Ubuntu installer will append an entry for the internal HDDs OS to the boot menu of the external HDD.

To start, you, of course, need an external HDD connected to the computer you are going to use and an installation image of Ubuntu 13.10, which is available for download here. Burn the downloaded image to a CD/DVD or transfer it to a USB stick. To avoid wasting a CD or DVD, transferring it to a USB stick is the recommended option. See Install Ubuntu 13.10 using a USB key from Window or another Linux distribution if you need help with that.

One last thing: Set the computer to boot from an external media. Reboot (the computer) and let’s get started. By the way, if you are new to disk partitioning in Linux, read guide to disks and disk partitions in Linux. It will make it easier to understand what you will be doing.

1. Installation Requirements: When you boot from the installation disc or USB stick, you are given the option of booting into a Live desktop or straight to the installer. Which ever option you choose, click past the first step of the installer to get to the step shown in this screen shot. You may opt to enable the two choices available at this step. Continue.
Ubuntu 13.10 install specs

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2. Be Aware!: You need to click Yes here. Why? Because sdb is the external HDD, which is the target device.
Ubuntu 13.10 warning

3. Partition Methods: This step shows available partition methods. As noted earlier, the computer used for this tutorial is running Windows 8 on the internal HDD. And I have two Linux distribution – in dual-boot fashion, on the external HDD. What all that means is that I’ll need to be doing a manual partitioning of the target HDD. That is the only way you can be sure that you will not be erasing the contents of the internal HDD. So, click on the Something else option. Continue.
Ubuntu 13.10 disk partition methods

4. Advanced Partitioning Tool: That will bring you to the Advanced Partitioning Tool’s window. This step shows all the HDDs detected by the installer and their partitions. For the computer used in this tutorial, there are just two HDDs – sda and sdb. The target HDD is sdb, so don’t touch any of sda’s partitions.
Ubuntu 13.10 advanced partitions

5. Erase Unwanted Partitions: This screen shot shows all the partitions on sdb. You can see that there are two Linux distributions on it already. Since I don’t need them, the task here is to delete all of its partitions. To delete a partition, simply select it and click the button on the lower-left corner.
Ubuntu 13.10 erase partitions

All partitions have been deleted, time to create partitions for Ubuntu 13.10. Notice that the size of the external HDD is 320 GB. However, I do not intend to use all that disk space for Ubuntu 13.10, just about half of it. With regards to creating the partitions, the goal is to create the same set of partitions on a default installation of Ubuntu 13.10. That means creating just two partitions; the main partition mounted at / (root) and a Swap partition.
Ubuntu 13.10 disk partitions

6. Partition Editor: This is the partition editor’s window. With no existing partitions on the HDD, the installer will set up the options to create a primary partition. And that’s just fine, at least for the first partition. The only fields you need to change are the size and mount point. The default file system is ext4, which you don’t need to change unless you have a specific reason to.
Ubuntu 13.10 install add partition

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7. Create Root Partition: For the root partition, I chose to allocate 150 GB to it. This is just an example. Assign whatever you think is appropriate for your installation, keeping in mind that the minimum disk space required is just under 6 GB. Select the mount point as shown and click OK.
Ubuntu 13.10 install add root partition

8. Back to the main partitioning window, the partition just created should be listed below sdb. Select the free space and click the + button.
Ubuntu 13.10 add partition

9. Back here again. By default, the installation will want to create the next partition as a logical partition. That, too, is fine. However, I chose to create the Swap partition as another primary partition. Whether the partition is primary or logical will have no impact on the system, so if you don’t want to mess with the default, don’t.
Ubuntu 13.10 install partition editor

10. Create Swap Partition: So I allocated the Swap partition just 2000 MB (2 GB). That should be more than enough for any desktop system. Select swap area from the “Use as” menu and click OK.
Ubuntu 13.10 install add swap partition

11. Back to the main partitioning window, you see the two partitions you just created. Notice also that I left a lot of free space unallocated. I didn’t have to, just did it in case I have to create an extra partition after installation. This free space could also be used to create a shared NTFS partition.

The most important thing you need to do here is ensure that the external HDD is the device where the boot loader will be installed. You do that by selecting /dev/sdb from the menu.
Ubuntu 13.10 install partition

12. Install Now: Here’s the menu just before you click Install Now.
Ubuntu 13.10 install MBR external HDD

After installation, reboot and verify that the installer did not mess with the MBR of the internal HDD. If you can boot from it, you are good to go. And if you see an entry for the OS on the internal HDD in the boot menu of the external HDD, all is good, too.

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27 Responses

  1. I followed the guide strictly on every detail, Ubuntu works fine but when I try to load Windows it shows the loading splash screen but then goes black and the HD light keeps blinking but nothing happens except my fans start going crazy like its over heating, HALP!

      1. sorry not sure what exactly you are asking. initially, i did a fresh install of windows 7 and ran all the updates, then i ran Ubuntu from the CD and installed it as per the guide on the second hard drive. i rebooted and windows loaded up automatically, then i installed/ran EasyBCD to add the Ubuntu entry and set GRUB2, then when I rebooted after that I can run Ubuntu fine but Windows hangs on the black screen just after you see the initial splash Windows 7 loading screen. I can get into Windows Safe mode as well.

        1. hold the presses, it appears that the black screen of death was caused by an updated nvidia driver in Windows 7, everything appears to work once I restored to a point before the drivers were updated.

  2. I followed the directions and everything went smooth. But when I try to boot up ubuntu I get sent to a grub prompt. Do you have any ideas on what is going wrong?

    1. Tough to say. Where did you install GRUB, /dev/sdb or /dev/sdb1?

      Can you boot into Windows? If you can, try reinstalling Ubuntu. If you followed the steps as described, it should work.

      1. Windows will boot up fine and I believe I installed GRUB in /dev/sdb. Would it make a difference that I’m installing ubuntu on a external hdd? I will try to reinstall like you suggested and see if that helps.

        1. Installing to an external drive, something I feel is not necessary, is likely the problem. If installing to an external drive, what’s the point of dual-booting. You could just install Ubuntu to the external drive instead of attempting to dual-boot with Windows.

          Dual-booting makes sense only if installing to internal drives on the same computer.

  3. I tried this install method and everything went ok. But when I try to boot up Ubuntu a grub command line comes up. Any ideas what I did wrong?

  4. I have 2 sata hard disks. On one I have windows 7. While installing linux on the other, i didn’t use the manual partitioning method but the ‘use entire disk’ one. Will it still work if I use BCD program to modify the Windows Boot Manager?

    1. Yes, it will, but I hope you understand what happens with the default installation: In your case, the installer will install GRUB in the MBR of the first drive. That makes GRUB responsible for dual-booting both operating systems. While this will work. It also means that you do not need to use the BCD program to modify the Windows Boot Manager.

      Use the BCD program to modify the Windows Boot Manager only if you want Windows Boot Manager to be responsible for dual-booting both operating systems.

  5. Thank you very much for the guide.
    It is a simple & well tailored tutorial.
    Brilliant. Everything was such a breeze.

    One issue though i faced was the boot loader.
    After installation of Mint, neither operating system was booting.

    A disk read error has occurred message would pop out.
    Figured my way out though!
    Now all is in good shape and running well!

    Thanks again

  6. I tried this method with one small difference. I installed windows on the second disk and ubuntu on the first disk. Everything worked fine with the exception of one thing. Anything I installed on linux was not saved to /home. I kept getting errors saying that / and /boot were full. Did I do something wrong?

    1. If the system is saying / and /boot are full, are they?

      Use the disk utility to see whether they are. Or just launch a terminal and type df -h to see what’s going on.

      That aside, the method you used could cause you plenty of pain down the line. When dual-booting Windows and Linux, the recommended method, the path of least-trouble-down-the-road, is to install Windows first.

      1. Thanks, I reset my smaller hd as sata1 and am redoing everything. Hope it all works out. Thanks for the quick response

  7. I did the dual boot but when i start my laptop it only starts with ubuntu, i want the option which comes before starting to choose the os to start, but it did not come and only laptop starts with ubuntu and i cant start my laptop with windows 7

    1. If you installed Ubuntu on the third HDD, the only reason it is starting with Ubuntu is you installed GRUB, the boot loader, on the MBR of the first hard disk. It also tells me that you used the default, auto-partitioning mode. If you had switched to the advanced, manual partitioning mode, you would have had the option to install GRUB somewhere else.

      But even with GRUB installed on the MBR of the first disk, it should have added an entry for Windows 7 in the GRUB menu. The question is this: What did you not do right? Did you follow the directions as laid out in the link I suggested in my last comment?

      Your best bet now is to edit GRUB’s config file and add an entry for Windows 7.

      I am assuming that you did not install Ubuntu in the same space that Windows was installed, that is, you did not delete the Windows installation.

  8. SOLVED – I’m posting for every one having the problem. Before altering the windows bootloader with easyBCD you have to assign a drive letter to the windows hidden system partition. Then you can the entry for mint. After reboot everything works sweetly.!! If you do not want the drive to appear in my computer, you can exclude it by altering a group policy using gpedit.exe in cmd.

  9. Done that already after setting up easyBCD and didn’t work. Do you recon I have to do it before setting up easyBCD? I was also thinking if there is a way to change the drive scan order (If I’m putting correctly) in grub2 so that ntfs partitions are omitted during mint’s start up. Could this solve the problem and if so how can i easily do it?
    Thnx..

  10. Followed the guide step by step. Upon restarting, after selecting Linux Mint 10″ on win bootloader, I get the Ttry (HD0,0): NTFS5: No ang0″ message. It stays on screen for about 30sec (maybe more) and after that linux starts normally. How can I make that disappear so that Mint loads faster?

    1. I have never encountered that message, but others have reported that it is caused by the presence of an unlettered partition in windows – likely the system partition. And the fix is to find that partition under Disk Management, and rename to a drive letter.

      1. Sorry for accidentally posting the answer under my own question..

        Followed the guide step by step. Upon restarting, after selecting Linux Mint 10″ on win bootloader, I get the Ttry (HD0,0): NTFS5: No ang0″ message. It stays on screen for about 30sec (maybe more) and after that linux starts normally. How can I make that disappear so that Mint loads faster?

        1. JESUS what a mess…
          @finid – my reply is this..finally..
          Done that already after setting up easyBCD and didn’t work. Do you recon I have to do it before setting up easyBCD? I was also thinking if there is a way to change the drive scan order (If I’m putting correctly) in grub2 so that ntfs partitions are omitted during mint’s start up. Could this solve the problem and if so how can i easily do it?
          Thnx..

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